Saturday, 29 May 2010

That thorny old issue

The point of view (POV) in a novel has been something of a hobby horse of mine since I took an MA in Creative Writing a few years ago. Whether it's my analytical brain, or my natural tidiness (no comments needed by people who know me - in my brain I'm tidy...), but I've always felt that the point of view in a novel should be clearly set out and that certain rules should be followed.

I know I can bore the socks of some people about POV, but briefly for those who don't know and are interested (rest hop to paragraph below), what I'm talking about is this: when reading about how a character feels, we imagine the writer is inside their brain. When he moves to describe another person's feelings, he's changing the point of view. This change should be flagged somehow, by a paragraph or chapter break. If it isn't, confusion can arise; who's brain are we in now, the husband's or the wife's? Or perhaps it's the mistress, who's just stepped out of the marital en-suite shower who's speaking? I also often think that a novel which is written from a third person should not switch to 1st person narrative and vice versa.

I would also go as far as to say I don't particularly like an omniscient style, where the writer is pretending to be God-like figure, sitting on a cloud high up in the sky, describing the feelings of his characters going on about their business below. Unless very well done, it can be very confusing to read, and affect the authenticity of the story. It's also quite old-fashioned, this was the way books were written in the olden days.

As for chopping and changing the POV, not being wholly omniscient, nor holding to any of the above rules, or mixing 3rd and 1st person narratives? This just drives me completely crazy. (As witnessed by those unfortunate enough to get involved in a discussion about POV with me.) It makes me wonder if the writer has mixed POV just to be different. In my view it doesn't make the story more interesting, or make the telling of it more poignant, it just confuses and annoys.

On the other hand, writing a book wholly in one character's first person, though intense, can seem self-indulgent. Many modern novelists use the easy technique of having a chapter per character, telling the story from the POV of, say, three of four main characters. But blindly following the rules of POV in this way can make the novel a little, dare I say it, boring.

So what is the writer to do? Some, like for instance, Booker-nominated Gerard Woodward in his novel about a modern British middle-class family struggling with alcohol addiction, 'I'll Go To Bed At Noon', used a combination of an omniscient POV with a third person narrative. When the story demanded it, he'd swap POV mid paragraph. And in spite of my initial huffing and puffing while reading the book, I liked it. Because, as often is the case in fiction, or art, the most magnificent things happen when rules are broken.

The reason I'm writing about this is that with my latest manuscript I'm really struggling to decide what kind of point of view to use. I'm concerned that I'm not talented enough to do what Gerard Woodward did, nor am I confident enough to go wholly omniscient. Though I think that my particularly story would really suit this way of telling it. So far I've written parts of it in third person from 3 different character's POV. There's also a chapter in 1st person, one which in my opinion works really well. It makes the story much more immediate, and I think makes the reader empathise with my main character to a much higher degree.But I can't write the whole story from this one character's POV, in first person. Nor do I think I could combine 3rd and 1st person narratives.

While pondering this I was wandering around Daunt Books in North London and picked up a new book that I thought my book club would enjoy. It's 'The Privileges' by an US author called Jonathan Dee. To be honest I chose it because it was about New York ,a city I love and a city which features strongly in my current manuscript. It also had an endorsement by Jonathan Franzen, who's novel 'The Corrections' I absolutely loved. And I'm a sucker for endorsements by authors I love. (Probably lots of people are, why else would publishers use them...?)

In any case, I started to read the new book last night and was astounded by the style. Fully omniscient, it still manages to be modern, fast paced and absolutely clear about who's brain we're having a little look into. Reading Dee has made me want to restart my manuscript from scratch to try out his style. At least I shall do an exercise we did during the MA where you copy a style for your own story for a chapter and see how it works. In a way I almost wish it won't work as that means  a re-write as early as 25,000 words into the novel. But, if it does work and I prove to be skilful enough (please, please, the God of Authors...!) it could be quite refreshing to say goodbye to all my hang-ups about POV.

Wish me luck!


Marsha said...

Good luck! POV is something I struggle with and I've come full circle from third to first and back to third again. I like multiple POVs, since you can mix it up and tell the story from different characters' perspectives.

It's never easy, though, is it?

Wildernesschic said...

This was so interesting .. I am lacking time to work on mine at the moment. This was something I had a hard time deciding on, how to approach the story. I went with multiple POV as I felt I was in danger of being totally self indulgent and putting 'me ' in the story.. being a total novice etc..
But I am enjoying writing so much.. I have no idea if it will ever be published .. but that is beside the point. xx

Waiting For John said...

Hiya Helena (I'm not in character for this one, lol)

POV, yeah it can be a very diffiult decision. I think if a book's well written it doesn't really matter. Choices, choices, choices... writing is easy until you know what you're doing.

Hope you're well... and thank you so very much for continuing to read and pass your time on WFJ.

Tristram. X

Metropolitan Mum said...

I am one for tidiness, too. People say I am obsessed. Well, what can I say? Life is complicated enough as it is - why not keep it clean and simple wherever I can?

Anyhow, good luck with your manuscript. xx MM

Rose said...

I'm not against omniscient writing but agree that it must be very well done.

Do most writers write in a certain point of view and stick to it? I'm trying to think and failing!

Unknown said...

Marsha and Ruth, I agree; multiple 3rd person is really useful, not boring and not indulgent, nor too personal.

Tristram, Nice to *see* you and how right you are!

Metropolitan Mum, I do agree re the tidiness, but then untidiness can sometimes be more artistic? Discuss...

Rose, I think lots of writers change the point of view to suit the book, but some people (like Ian McEwan for example) do the 3rd person part-omniscient thing very well.

Helena xx